Time for IT managers to wise up

Corporate indifference to Internet technology is a serious problem, writes Mark Vernon
"If you are up to your posterior in alligators, then swamp drainage is not the most pressing topic for conversation." Thus Graham Brown, chief executive of Neaman Bond Associates, summed up the findings of a report for Computer Associates on corporate interest in the Internet. Continuing the trend of recent research bursting the Internet bubble, the report found that a majority of IT managers have more immediate concerns than an over-hyped and unreliable technology.

Neaman Bond questioned 134 IT managers and technology strategists in the corporate IT departments of typical UK and Irish Global 5000 organisations, across all industries. And they label 52 per cent of businesses "agnostics", having no Internet strategy at all, and a further 29 per cent as mere "information surfers" who regard the Internet as an emerging but immature communication and information resource.

It is in part the hype itself that has generated such resistance. For example, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the much-trumpeted success of the Web-based Amazon bookshop, the researchers came across traditional book retailers who had no hesitation in saying that the Internet has no part to play in their business. In fact, the research found that interest is at its lowest in retailing, with fewer than 10 per cent having a corporate Internet strategy.

The logic of cool commerce is at play here. Over the last six or seven years, control over the technology spend has moved out of IT departments to business directors, who are not seduced by new technology. It is tight cost justification that they require. This is hard enough to deliver for any innovative project, but is compounded in the case of IT. The language of "cost centres" preferred by the accountants misses the concept of "benefit centres", a better way to assess the advantages that IT-empowered knowledge workers can bring to business.

The report also found that many IT departments are simply preoccupied with existing demands. Mergers, migrations and day-to-day support absorb all their energies. The year 2000 problem and EMU compliance threaten on the horizon. And Brown highlights a final issue, referring to a conversation he had with a bank. "It had broken up its IT department in order to prepare for outsourcing, and in the process had alienated all concerned." Job insecurity does not inspire workers to offer imaginative suggestions for business development.

But he believes that part of the fault for the disconnection between business managers and technology innovators lies with the IT industry itself. He recollects Alan Bennett's comments on the evolution of institutions, when the people on the inside come to despise the people on the outside, even though they are the ones they work to serve. So it is with technology. A feeling of inferiority and insecurity has become pervasive amongst the laity, compounded by the superior attitude of the IT "high priests".

More specifically, within corporations two factors combine to sustain the sense of alienation. On the one hand, strategic IT is being evaluated too low in the organisation, by employees without the power to make decisions regarding its purchase. And on the other, those who are able to make decisions are not well enough informed about the benefits that the technology can bring, and so rather miss the point. This all contributes to a crisis in communication.

What has yet to happen is for directors to realise that Internet technologies hold solutions to the problems they are now facing. But the trouble is that it is still being sold as technology for technology's sake. In the same way that a Sega Saturn does not bill itself as a 32-bit RISC CH2 28.6 MHz processor, but as a great way to play games, so Internet technology such as modems, PCs and browsers must disappear into the background infrastructure, and the functionality it can deliver to the corporation must be brought to the foren